7/7 bombings, London and British Muslims: five years on

Some brief, perhaps random, thoughts.

I didn't have a chance on Wednesday to write anything about the fifth anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings.

It was, as the cliché goes, a day that changed the world. Well, my world, at least. It was a deeply traumatic time for London, for those who lived or worked in the capital, for those of us who love this great city. As a Londoner and a commuter, I saw the faces of fear and anxiety on the Tube, on the buses, in the workplace.

As a journalist, I witnessed and documented how armed police became a common sight on our streets and how barricades were erected around parliament and Westminster -- and how terror-related stories came to dominate the news agenda.

And, as a British Muslim, I noted with despair how both the Islamic faith and Muslim communities across the UK came under greater scrutiny, criticism and condemnation from politicians, the media, the security services, self-appointed "experts" and, of course, the far right. The 7 July attacks in London, as I argued in a BBC Radio 4 documentary last weekend, had a much greater impact on Muslim/non-Muslim relations in this country than the 11 September attacks in the United States.

Take the recent YouGov poll which revealed that 58 per cent of Britons associate Islam with extremism and 50 per cent believe that the religion is linked with terrorism. (Other polls, like this Gallup survey which showed Muslims in London were more likely to identify strongly with the UK than the population at large, sadly attract less attention from the media.)

This might sound like navel-gazing from a moaning Muslim but, as even the conservative commentator Peter Oborne wrote in the Daily Mail on Wednesday, "Muslims, too, were the long-term victims of the 7/7 atrocities". He added:

Society turned against them. Completely innocent people found themselves being blamed for a crime that they had not committed. Muslims were traduced, spat at and physically attacked.

Police stopped them in the street as terrorist suspects. Yaser Iqbal, a Birmingham barrister, recalls: "I can still vividly recall the menace and hatred in the eyes of almost every white face that stared at me on that day -- and they all stared."

While I agree with much of Oborne's analysis, I have to admit that it could have been much, much worse for Britain's Muslims. I'm proud that there were no riots or pogroms or sectarian violence, and that British Muslims were not rounded up or interned en masse by the British state. But I do often wonder (dread?) what might happen if, God forbid, there was to be another terrorist attack in the capital perpetrated by "home-grown" Muslim terrorists.

Home-grown. It's a disturbing and depressing phrase. I remember, as I watched the images of death and destruction on Sky News on the morning of 7 July 2005, thinking: "Please God, don't let it be Muslims." Days later, sitting in a hotel room on holiday abroad, I saw the names and faces of Mohammad Sidique Khan, Hasib Hussain, Shazad Tanweer and Germaine Lindsay flash across the television screen. Young British Muslims. Just like me. Three of them the British-born children of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. Just like me. And I cried. I knew that my city, my country and my own particular faith community would never be the same again.

The British Muslim journalist Zaiba Malik, author of the new book We Are a Muslim, Please, wrote in the Guardian on Monday:

When I think back to that day five years ago, Thursday 7 July, I remember the disruption -- the gridlocked traffic, the sirens, the overloaded mobile phone network. It was all so noisy. Then I remember staring at four men on the cover of every newspaper under headlines such as: "Home-grown suicide bombers" and "British Muslim terrorists".

One in particular, Shazad Tanweer, grabbed my attention; partly because he looked younger, less harsh than the other three, and also because he was born just a few streets away from where I grew up in Bradford.

As I stared at Tanweer and the others, I cried, knowing that from now on things would all be so different for us, for British Muslims. I was also mourning the past, for that time when there were no extremists or fundamentalists, no Islamism or Islamophobia, no war on terror; for the time when we just got on with our lives.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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